Disability on Screen: The Theory of Everything

This film is inspiration porn.

Let me elaborate:

Perhaps most responsible for my assessment is the film’s ending: the speech (in answer to the third question from a conference floor I think) and dream sequence imply a sort of transcendence, suggesting a message of “Look what this disabled guy can do. Look what he can overcome. We can do anything if we put our minds to it.”

This is really problematic. By moulding the story into one of individual transcendence of disability, the film erases the systematic discrimination we as disabled people encounter, and even at times the primary impacts of our disabilities.

Actually, I thought this was a particular shame for this specific film. With the ending removed, or handled differently the film could potentially have gone some way in transmitting a more helpful message in showing the extent to which Hawking has succeeded because he has been supported, by professionals, family, friends, academic colleagues and institutions.* The ending downplays the value of this support, individualising Hawking’s success into a “the only disability is a bad attitude” type narrative, thus ridding abled people of any responsibility to change their ways in order to make life more accessible.**

I wish I had the support Hawking received and continues to receive. (I don’t mean that in the sense of needing exactly the same things, but wishing that people believed in me and what I do enough to accept – hell, even celebrate – how I do it, rather than tell me that the way I work isn’t good enough.) Some may argue that Hawking deserves support more because his intellect is so extraordinary. But if myself and others are not properly supported, no one will know what we could have achieved.

(And think about what the suggestion that only some disabled people deserve the support of society could mean – are some of us of less value as people?)

So, overall, using disabled lives to provide entertainment and inspiration for abled people, without abled people having to face a responsibility to make the world less ableist. In short disabled lives are commodified, and sold in such a way as to make abled people feel good. Inspiration porn.

* This isn’t to do Hawking down: this support is part of a network of interdependencies, not a simple two-pole, one-way thing. It’s been noted by contemporaries of Hawking from his earlier years at Cambridge that some of his collaborators on some of his work (e.g. a student of his, someone he shared an office with) simply do not feature in the film. For sure, the film does not to cover all years of Hawking’s life and career, but at least one had been part of his friendship group as a research student. The friendship group features in the film, but this individual does not. Probably some behind the scenes politics here. In any case, the example of collaborative work demonstrates nicely how support and enrichment go both ways. Whether in a factual or fictionalised form, this interdependency could have been explored in the film.

** “The only disability is a bad attitude” – see what I mean about denying the impact of disabilities?! And clearly, when I’m angry about inaccessibility, me being angry is the problem – me having a bad attitude – not systematic ableism.

Quote from Stella Young next to photograph of here in motorised wheelchair with knitting. Quote reads "That quote, ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude’, the reason that's bullshit is ... No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille."

Quote from Stella Young next to photograph of here in motorised wheelchair with knitting. Quote reads “That quote, ‘the only disability in life is a bad attitude’, the reason that’s bullshit is … No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs has ever made it turn into a ramp. No amount of standing in the middle of a bookshelf and radiating a positive attitude is going to turn all those books into braille.”

Expansions in response to other articles emerging in the wake of the film’s UK release:

We wouldn’t accept actors blacking up, so why applaud ‘cripping up’?, Frances Ryan in the Guardianhttp://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/jan/13/eddie-redmayne-golden-globe-stephen-hawking-disabled-actors-characters?CMP=fb_gu: There is a potential problem here of assuming someone’s abledness. The problems encountered when one passes as abled differ to those when one’s disability is or becomes apparent, and the article is in some sense primarily concerned with the latter; in some sense as the equation of disability with its appearance – or, rather, a distilling of an idea of that appearance by an abled person’s eye – is another problem in itself. Regardless, the observations here intertwine with mine: a narrative of transcendence and the-only-disability-is-a-bad-attitude-ness rids abled people of the responsibility to challenge ableism in word and deed. If the only disability is a bad attitude, then clearly disabled actors are chronically underemployed because they’re grumpy and troublesome, not because of systematic discrimination right? (Also, in this example, the success of disabled actors wouldn’t be nearly as inspirational if abled people actually took steps to overcome ableism and cast disabled actors. And losing yet another source of inspiration – well, that would be tragic!)

Stephen Hawking would not be Stephen Hawking if he had been born with his disability, Alex Taylor in the New Statesmanhttp://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2015/01/stephen-hawking-would-not-be-stephen-hawking-if-he-had-been-born-his-disability: This reminded me that the observations I’ve made also apply before tertiary education. Others share my experience of being shut out of institutions of learning by refusals to make these spaces accessible to them, but have encountered these from a younger age. With a different approach to education these people could have been as successful as me or Hawking, or even more.


Study Spaces

The Graduate School of Arts and Humanities - colloquially known as the "Grad Pad" - as shown of the University of Bristol website. (Source: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/gradschool/)

The Graduate School of Arts and Humanities – colloquially known as the “Grad Pad” – as shown of the University of Bristol website. (Source: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/gradschool/)

Content warning: discussion of institutional ableism.

As a research student, one of the most immediate changes I’m having to make in response to ME is my study habits. I mean this not only in terms of the time I spend studying, but also where I do so. As such, I’m going to use this blog post to comment on the accessibility of study spaces. The matter of what problems I’ve spotted is doubtless affected by what my own access needs are, but I have tried to talk about some other issues I’ve noticed too.

At present, a shelf worth of library books which I took out at the beginning of the academic year, before my problems with fatigue began, is Bristol’s Graduate School of Arts and Humanities, on Woodland Road. As the year goes on, I have increasingly been spending my research hours elsewhere.

Why?: Because the Graduate School of Arts and Humanities building is impressively inaccessible.* There is neither a lift, nor a flat access study space. While I can reach the study rooms on other floors, I would rather avoid the exertion of unnecessary stair climbing, in order to conserve my energy for more unavoidable tasks and work. And it’s not just a question of climbing up once to get to the room and once to leave. The study rooms allocated to research students are on the top floor. The common room is on the ground floor. Every time I want to have a snack or a cup of tea, or take a break without potentially distracting my work mates, I need to descend two flights of stairs, then ascend again to get back to work. I also need to go to another floor to get to a toilet. This is despite there being a kitchen and toilet on the top floor. But these are “staff only”, and apparently they do get aggy if they find a student in the kitchen. So any energy saved by using that kitchen is potentially then lost via the stressful situation of either having to explain my condition to a randomer, or (and potentially also following an explanation) being told off like a school kid, just because I used a kitchen.**

On the subject of toilets, the one on the ground floor is designated as “disabled”. My ass. This toilet has one of the heaviest doors I have ever encountered – and it’s not one which has the option of pressing a button to open. The door can be pushed to go through it in both directions. Except sometimes it can’t. Last year, I found a pile of crates used for moving catering stuff left right in front of it. If you pushed the door to get out, you could just about fit a person through the gap. If you were using crutches or – heaven forbid – a wheelchair, then could you get out?


I told the staff about this, and they said they’d sort it out that day. They didn’t. The next time I was in, which I think was a couple of days later, those crates were still there. A friend and I moved them ourselves.

But hey, if you were stuck in the toilet because of these crates you could always pull the emergency cord, right?

Wrong. The emergency cord has been cut off at the top.

Of course, this is all assuming we’ve got into the building in the first place. Because, as I said earlier, there is no flat access. Scouting round the entrance, I can see where there is meant to be a ramp: it should go up half way on the other side of a short wall, then turn into the garden, and continue up to the entrance level from there. (That is, the main entrance, which is only open during office hours. The out of hours entrance is down some stairs, because clearly everyone who needs flat access is only active between nine and five.)

I can see _where there is meant to be_ a ramp. I’ve studied at Bristol for a year and a half now, and ever since I can remember that ramp has been blocked. The other side of the short wall, there are builders’ fences, with piles of junk inside them, blocking the entire width of the ramp.

Why don’t I just use another study space, you ask? Well, I do. I spend most of my research hours at home now. There were reasons why I liked to work in the Graduate School. I liked the sense of community in a building used by arts and humanities postgrads: it got me through my Masters dissertation, moreover making me friends in the process. The provision of kitchen space meant I could save money by bringing my own tea, soup, etc. (Indeed, this would still save me money and energy compared to other study spaces, where I’d have to find a nearby café to buy stuff from, or invest in a large and heavy collection of thermoses whereas with a kitchen I could use small, light takeaway boxes – saving energy again.) Also, all of the toilets in the Graduate School building are gender neutral (they are all single stall), which saves me the stress associated with odd looks in gendered toilets, or when seen hovering awkwardly outside the disabled loo in the library, waiting for it to be free.

In any case, why should I use another study space? The University of Bristol pride themselves on their provision of a building set aside for the postgrads of the Arts, Humanities, and Modern Languages faculties. They argue – and quite rightly – that the community fostered by this shared working space is invaluable to our research. As, indeed, it is to our social lives, as the work which makes up PhDs in these subjects is almost entirely solitary. Except that students such as myself are denied this.

The Graduate School’s website claims that the building’s interior “has been specifically designed and adapted to cater for postgraduate students’ needs”.*** As such, the extreme inaccessibility of the Graduate School of Arts and Humanities building tells me that my University does not think myself and other students with access needs are deserving members of the academic community. It implies that our thoughts and ideas are not worth sharing with other students. Indeed, it potentially implies that they think we lack the skills needed in order to pursue postgraduate study.

The university is wrong. We know it, our supervisors know it, and our friends who can access the Grad school know it. The situation at present is simply not good enough.

*This is entirely contra to the claims of the out of date website, which reads “The ground floor, with full disabled access, holds the main reception, a large teaching room, and a common room for postgraduate students to relax and chat.”  -http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/gradschool/about/facilities/

**It’s perhaps also worth noticing that staff frequently use the student kitchen!

*** http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/gradschool/about/facilities/